Nazareth

| September 15, 2010

Like a “good” southern lady, I am well versed in the scriptures (both Old and New Testament) of the Bible. Once in these scriptures, a Pharisee asks of Jesus about his hometown, “Can any good thing come from Nazareth?” Based on the question, you can tell that Nazareth was a humble beginning for a man who later attained fame.

If Nazareth were a southern town, it might have been my hometown, where my family and I filled two rows of church pews but corn whisky flowed on back roads and twice a year NASCAR zoomed in the far off Wilkesboro distance. This was my Nazareth.

How does one move from North Carolina hill country to an Ivy League school in New York City? It’s not a silly question. Residual versions of the same question mystify most scholars of English education. How does English education promote individual freedom? How does English education enable learning for students regardless of their hometown? How do we educate for freedom those students who live in places like Nazareth?

I do not pretend to be marginalized, but I was limited by the lack of imagination of my surrounds. I didn’t connect with people back home, and even though I spoke, talked, and possessed the same manners as they, I was never one of them. My desire to connect pushed me forward and into Academia. It led me to types of research that connected me-as-Other in the Academy to me-as-Academic in the Academy. Gradually, I developed credibility and pursued connection with researchers in the field. One of those researchers is Shirley Brice Heath, education ethnographer and author of Ways with Words.

I once asked Shirley why I loved names in research. I wanted to know why names mattered so much to me, and I wanted to know how names enabled my research. I further developed my questions to Shirley: “Why do I have a need to know the researchers, like you, personally?”

Heath, raised in the south, attributed the love for relationship and names to my being a southern lady: most southern ladies love to talk, and they love people. I don’t consider myself to be a “southern lady,” per se, but I guess in this way, and in the way that good southern ladies know Bible, I am.  Now, I am convinced that my southern style, loving relationships, names, and people has enabled my growth as a researcher. My southern culture has made possible the very access it once denied. Funny, yeah?

Me-as-Other had some work to do in order to make it into the Academy. And, me-as-less-Other must perform regular maintenance in order to stay. The main thing I have had to overcome is my own self-consciousness. This was perpetuated once by a crusty old English  professor in particular. Undergraduate at the time, eager to grow and learn, I asked him about additional education I could pursue in order to improve my reading. He said, “Well, you are just going to teach high school, right?” Then he asked another question, “What’s your GPA?” I spattered the GPA off to him: somewhere between a B+ and A-. “Well, it won’t get any higher,” he declared. I am certain his impression was in part a response to my culture, and I know my culture reflected certain gaps in what I knew as a first generation college student. I felt inferior. Some so-called intellectuals like this professor hear how I speak, thick mountain accent (thick even for North Carolina) and they hear what I speak with all my round about ways of talking, and they might underestimate me, at first.

But I keep talking.
I make friends.
I remember names.

To my surprise, Academic people–even some skeptical intellectuals–enjoy and appreciate me. They see past my southern culture or they see into and appreciate it. I have improvised on my culture: using the same “culture” which initially made formal education difficult, I connect to others in order to make my continued formal education possible. No one improvises alone. No one improvises without effort. I have had to make connections, and to do that I had to get over myself enough to connect to people who would not automatically see me as an intellectual peer. Similarly, some of them have had to work against their first impressions to see me. Together, we make new music, better sounds.

Can any good thing come from Nazareth? A lot of good things come from Nazareth. Some good things, like my family, stay in a place like Nazareth and never leave. Of people who leave a humble hometown, like some kind of Nazareth, some of them will be well known. Some will never be known. If skepticism or self-consciousness dictate interactions, no good thing can come from a place like Nazareth. All that might be great about its people gets lost in cliche, old stereotypes, and shame. We never see the Other as good or credulous; status quo rules interactions; and countless good things flow past as if in a stream, never announcing an arrival and never saying farewell as moments for potential connections are lost.